Apr 112013
 

Read me the story

For every effect is itself a cause, just as every cause proceeds from prior causes. So was the Divine Warrior doomed to fight battle after battle, each battle the effect of the previous and the cause of the next. Not until He saw the tyranny of the temporal imperative was it given Him to cleave Time and open the Gates of Eternity.
Immutable Truths, v. 7-8
The Book of the Third Avatar
New Standard Revision

coffee tokenThe only possible justification for conquering Veran, Senior Lieutenant Rynart Joklan reflected, was that the alternatives, in their limited array, were all so much worse. He shook his head, trying to clear it of the thought. Mordant humor was common these days but it had never been his style. He broke the tab on his ration pak and waited for the red line to appear. He didn’t think much of Fleet catering, although you couldn’t deny that they were dealing with the overload pretty well.

“Hey, Ryn.” The voice came from behind him, and he turned his head, looking up enquiringly.

“Hey, Mat! Grab a ratpak and park the fundament.”

He was peeling the seal back from his own pak when his friend returned. “Haven’t seen you since…” Joklan stopped himself. No one referred to the past if they could help it, these days. “Well, congrats on the promotion, anyways. First in our class to make Kenterum, no less.”

Donley shrugged. “Just means you get chewed out by Colonels and Hartmans instead of Hartmans and Majors. I saw your name on the manifest but I’ve been on deadwatch all the way, so far. And they’ve got this crate so crammed full of bodies you’d never find your legs if they weren’t attached to your ass.”

Joklan glanced around. The mess compartment was pretty quiet compared to the usual mob scene, but then he was usually sleeping by this time. “It’s not bad, at that. Maybe I should put in for a duty transfer. Gotta be better than wetnursing a bunch of civilian eggheads.”

“Yeah, I heard you were moving in exalted circles. Practically the inner-inner, heh? So maybe you can answer the question everybody and his squadmen are asking.”

Joklan took a spoonful of reddish-brown stuff, lifted it to his mouth, chewed meditatively for a moment, and swallowed. “Chili, I think.” He eyed Donley. “Ask, O Seeker. The Oracle hears.”

Donley snorted. “Oracle. Two years in an Intel battalion and he’s an Oracle now. So riddle me this, oh well-informed one: Why in the name of the Holy Warrior and all His Avatars are we taking this much ordnance to dance with a bunch of sword-wielding savages? And for that matter, why in the name of the Warrior’s Blessed Bride are we dancing with savages at all? Whose brilliant brainstorm was that? Faithful Seekers want to know.” He spooned up some greenish-brown glop from his own ration pak and shoveled it in. His nose wrinkled. “Moogoo Gaipan. Bleah.”

Joklan assumed a consciously superior smile, and shook his head pityingly. “Such assumptions, my son. It’s easy to see that someone, despite his exalted rank, hasn’t been listening with attention to his Mission Updates.”

“Awww, haven’t you heard? Flitter jockeys are exempt from everything but flight briefings.”

“Oh, that’s right. Can’t risk overloading the limited cognitive abilities required for pilot training,” Joklan grinned, then lost the grin abruptly. “Actually, your questions come very apropos, in spite of the unreasonable assumptions.”

“Unreasonable how? Are you going to tell me that they’re not sword-wielding savages? And yes, I know about the whattayacallems, the Guardians, with their flash pistols and their concussion blasters and their sonic artillery and beam cascaders and feckall. But there’s only three thousand of them, right? There’s twenty-eight thousand of us. And our ordnance has a considerable edge over beam cascaders.”

“We think there’s three thousand of them. Crap, Mat, do you have any idea how little we actually know about these jonzos, not to mention the planet they’re on?”

Donley shrugged. “What’s to know? They’re Anachronists, right? Bunch of back-to-primitive-purity types, playing noble savage beyond the perimeter of inhabited space. Nutjob infidels with some kind of fetish about nature. Why them? We couldn’t find anyplace a little more, uh, civilized, to go for?”

“No,” Joklan said baldly. He was scraping his spoon around the main compartment of the ratpak, now, getting every last chunk. “We couldn’t. There isn’t a feckin’ thing within reach that will both get us off the Galactibank scanners, and provide a safe haven and the resources we need to rebuild the colony. Oh, great, cherry cobbler,” he gazed down into the supplementary compartment and made a face. Everyone hated the ratpak version of cherry cobbler, which tasted like cardboard soaked in cherry antifreeze.

“Lucky you. I got… mmmmm, chocolate profiteroles,” Donley spooned up a chunk of soggy, brown-streaked wrapping paper. I don’t get that thing about the Galactibanks. Did they really mean that, about all of us being subject to the Default Clauses?”

“Every double-decayed word of it, my friend. As soon as the Klaros colony is officially in default, we can expect every mercenary outfit this side of the Hub to descend on us, confiscate every confiscable asset—including all of us trained sojers, don’cha know—write up debt-bond contracts for everyone, and start the auction, selling everything—again, including us—to the highest bidder. Thus dispersing the Creator’s Chosen throughout the decadent heretical worlds of the Hub. So, in their infinite and Divinely-inspired wisdom, our revered Oligarchs decided that the only viable (and doubtless, Divinely-ordained) course of action is to sneak off the scanners, find ourselves a planet that will support life with the pittance of resources we have on hand, and breed ourselves back up to a respectable threat to interstellar peace and security, in a few centuries or so. That’s the strategic summary, you understand.”

“Timps, whatta feckup.” Donley crumpled his ratpak, spoon, and napkin, narrowed his eyes at the cloaca inlet on the bulkhead opposite the table, and lofted the wad neatly to oblivion without touching the sides. “I think I’ve earned me a coffee.”

For all the offenses of Fleet catering, the coffee aboard the Time Ripper atoned nobly. Unfortunately, like everything else, it was on ration. There was a brisk trade in coffee ration chips among wardroom poker players. Donley fished a handful from his pocket, and glanced at his friend. “I’m feeling generous, O Oracle. Wanna cup?”

“Thy sins are forgiven thee, my son. Plus I owe you one.” Joklan was a lousy poker player. Chess was his game.

Donley shoved two chips across the table. “You can do the fetching, then.”

Joklan disposed of his own debris and returned with two cups of steaming, heavenly-smelling, lifesaving fluid. “Here. I evaluated them both. This one’s better, so you can have it.”

“You dickhead.” Donley eyed the cup, which was not quite full. “You drank out of it!”

“Hey. Evaluation is my job. Don’t thank me,” Joklan grinned benevolently.

They sipped in silence for a few moments. Around them, personnel drifted in, in ones and twos, to draw their midwatch ration paks. There was a low hum of conversation, but no one was sitting nearby.

When Donley spoke, it was in a different tone of voice. “You aren’t too happy about this Veran thing.”

Joklan shrugged. “I’m just a lowly analyst. The Lord Commander doesn’t share his strategic and tactical planning sessions with me, neither does Old Steeleye.” He used the nickname for General-Hartman Ursek, the Intel Chief—a reference to the mythical Eagle who spied out the ground for the battles of the Divine Warrior.

“Well, the Lord Commander has an unbroken string of victories, my friend. Against opponents far more formidable than a bunch of Anachronist sword-swingers.”

“Maybe. I mean, yes, his victories are impressive… Timps, we would have mopped up Hecht and handed it to the First Legion on a gold plate if we’d had a couple more weeks, and Hecht was a tough rock to shatter. But as Old Steeleye says, what we don’t know can really hurt us. And we don’t know so much about Veran it makes me hurt just to think about it.”

“What’s to know? You think Caslon’s out of date? Inaccurate?” He referred to Caslon’s All the Colonized Planets, the standard almanac of the Hub, maintained and regularly updated by the University League, and published by a Galactibank publishing consortium.

“It’s not that. Well, it’s a little out of date—they don’t update on fringey systems like Veran more than once a decade or so—but that’s not a lot of information. And we don’t have a whole lot else. Articles in various publications, U-League archives, an Independent Fleet trade facilitation package and some intercepts between I-Fleet traders and various military hardware suppliers… and that’s it, brother. That’s all.”

Donley was startled. “You’re right, that’s not much,” he said slowly. “Why so little?”

Joklan shrugged again, a little uncomfortably. “It’s never been on any of our regular watch programs—for Bridesake, who’d ever have imagined we’d give a ping about it? And after the mess-up, the last thing we’d want to do is draw attention to our, ah, interest. So we had to go with what was on file. And that’s pretty much feckall.”

Chimes sounded on the ship’s intercom, five tones. They finished their coffee, and stood.

“Well, I know you don’t have much confidence in luck, Ryn. But you can’t play poker for crap. Me, if I’m going to bet on anyone’s luck, it’ll be the Lord Commander’s.”

“It’s not the Lord Commander’s luck that worries me,” Joklan said drily. “Let’s face it, Mat. Klaros Colony’s luck is one long string of cloaca flushes, for a long time now.”

Donley grimaced acknowledgment as he headed out the hatchway that led to the flight decks.

Sep 052012
 

Flattened circular construction are with buildings and other structures in foreground, green lighting contrasting with the dome of red-violet light above.A double line of ornamental pine trees stretched into the distance for perhaps five kilometers, bisecting the broad avenue leading to our last battle target.

We’d all but won our objective for Hecht; this battle would destroy the last command-and-control resources for the old colonial government and their Vetzkarran mercenary contractors. Two of the three Hecht planets had already declared a functional autonomy and were ready to legalize Protectorate agreements with our government; this, the third, was the seat of colonial control. Most of the colonial forces and their mercenary defenders had concentrated here.

The avenue linked the subcolony’s major mercantile and governmental facilities with its principal spaceport. There wasn’t much call for passenger transport yet—Hecht is a long way from the major commercial travel circuits—so the spaceport was designed mainly for industrial and military use. The port and its facilities occupied about a fifth of the planet’s largest habitat dome. Wresting control of the port from the Orban colonial masters would decide the balance in our favor.

This planet was close enough to Hecht’s primary that it could use a natural sunlight cycle. Filtered by the habitat’s tavis field, the angle of the light was almost perpendicular, minimizing shadow and throwing reflections upwards. That would be a factor for the gun platforms and the heavy-armor troops of the Vetzkarrans, using standard-issue visual-ranging technology.

Klarosian technology gave us an edge; Klarosian fighting experience and will expanded it. And the blessing of the Creator upon His Chosen, and the spirit of the Divine Warrior that would sustain us in battle (according to the pious,) assured the ultimate outcome.

The Intel drones supplying my vantage point on the battle were behind and just above the centermost gun platform on our forward right-wing battle group. When you wear a drone headset you feel like you’re there, physically. The impulse to duck incoming fire is almost irresistible, at first. Your body responds to the situation the way it would as if it were there, not eighty kilometers up in a low-orbit observation corvette.

It’s safer than being on a gun platform, even a shielded one, or bouncing around in heavy armor in the thick of the fire zone, but it doesn’t feel safer. Not by much. Not if you’re not used to it.

I’m not usually assigned to Combat Observation, but my Intel unit was substituting for the CO team normally attached to this battlegroup. Brass confidence in a decisive victory dictated having my chain of command on hand right away, to negotiate the most advantageous transfer-of-control terms. My boss’s boss, General Praukent, was to be in charge of the prep for those negotiations, and he wanted our people on the spot. We’d have to move fast to salvage information that the Orban government was probably trying to destroy even now.

The gun platforms ahead of me dipped sharply and the crawl alongside the drones’ analog reconstruction suddenly blossomed with data. We were on the move. Level-sounding voices gave brief, precise orders.

The avenue ahead was utterly deserted. We had warned the population to evacuate the area around the spaceport. There was no element of surprise to be sacrificed; they knew that was the critical target and they’d been preparing defenses there. One section of the readout area surrounding my headset was a feed from the team working on telemetric intercept and signal analysis that would give us realtime information on what they had where, where and when they were moving it, and so forth. Their jammers were good; we’d wasted a number of expensive skit-class nanoparasite rounds on dud targets.

Even so, over the last few critical minutes we’d managed to establish a fairly reliable outline of what waited for us, and the final victory wouldn’t be cheap. The Vetzkarran forces knew what kind of firepower we had in the system and they knew they didn’t have a chance of running past our pickets with heavy materiel transports. They’d have to expend it or abandon it to us and take the loss either way.

A big amber wash blanked out one section of my readout: They’d concentrated massive FE beamfire on the left wing command platform. A bright line of data in one of the upper corners showed three squadrons of our ATO fighters converging on the firepoint. The roofs of two large buildings nearby suddenly slid apart and fell a hundred meters to the street, flattening smaller structures and raising huge clouds of debris. Thirty or so Vetzkarran atmo fighters rose from inside the now-roofless buildings, where they’d been concealed, to engage our squadrons while the beamfire began to rake outwards to vaporize the warehouse and commercial structures behind which our Heavy Infantry Troops were massed.

I tore my attention away from that part of the readout; it wasn’t my responsibility. A quick adjustment grayed that section a little so that the activity wouldn’t distract me from my assignment: teasing apart the confusing tangle of data streams to identify personnel tracks that might locate critical command and control installations. It’s tricky work, you not only have to follow the precise degree and type of readout, but pick the right traces to collate and analyze for patterns that will reveal what’s going on. Physio, communications, weapons, and enviro power signatures all have their unique variations based on function and it all comes together in the realtime chaos of a battle situation.

Intel programs could give you an edge, if they were fine-tuned to a hair more effective than your opponent, but only if your firepower and human and strategic assets gave you time to use them. It looked as though the Vetzkarrans were trying to rush us into committing resources and overwhelm our computing power, while the Orban government forces—what were left of them—and the militia they’d recruited from among the subcolony population took chunks out of our strike forces.

I picked three promising data clusters and activated analysis subroutines that were designed to identify the relationship between their transmissions and the meta-synthesis of the battle events. If any of them showed a time lag profile match, we might be looking at command nodes.

My readout juddered and sputtered for a moment, and the headset filled with a dull roar. Then it stabilized, as the datafeed was shunted around the damaged probes, and self-repair subroutines kicked in. But the momentary disruption had fried my analysis tracks and two of the promising nodes had dissipated and were lost in the flood of information. The third was now clearly tagged as ordinary mobile assault unit command, and it was already being routed into my boss’s infeed stream. I started looking for something else to chew on.

Another part of the readout flared blue, suddenly, stabilized, and minimized, with other sectors enlarging to occupy its area. We’d taken the habitat control facility, one of our key objectives.

I glanced at the realtime track and realized that we’d been engaged for nearly an hour already, though it felt like minutes.

Suddenly the entire readout flashed, purposefully, three quick pulses. My brain, still tracking the datastreams, froze for a moment. But my fingers were already on the controls, minimizing the readout area and switching from full-combat mode to ready mode, allowing sensory input from the actual environment where I was sitting.

I could hear the “secure for maneuvers” siren around me, and the other members of the Intel team were already retracting headset feeds—our corvette was under attack by Vetzkarran Atmosphere-To-Orbit fighters, breaching the jathrin dome fields and boosting for our low-orbit assets.

The projection film at one end of the compartment showed the corvette’s combat plot: A Vetzkarran Destroyer was maneuvering to engage us from above, and the ATO squad was already strung out in attack pattern five kilometers below. This really did not look good.

Colonel Gratev’s voice growled in my headset. “Relax, gentlemen. The Saintly Sword is on the job, and we have Glerik Squadron on their tails. There’s still a battle to conn.” The projection film went dark, which would have made me pee myself with fright if I hadn’t been suited up and fully catheterized, but I realized a moment later, as existence continued, that the film had just been deactivated to keep it from being a distraction.

You can’t work as effectively in “ready” mode, but there’s a lot you can do and the boss wanted us doing it, not worrying about whether we were about to be meet the Divine Warrior face-to-face.

It was some comfort to know that Glerik Squadron was in our vicinity. I knew the squadron leader, Matt Donley—we’d been classmates at the Academy and Matt was one crazy-dangerous son-of-a-falut who could outmaneuver anything in flight, atmo or insystem. He had more than thirty kills notched on his helmet and the Glerik Squadron’s pennon was loaded with enough battle honors to weigh it down in a gale-force fanbreeze. I got back to work.

Three hours later the Orban government signaled our command ship, asking for terms. I’d feel good about it, after the migraine wore off.

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